February 2, 2014

Cards meet Communication: Allison and Daniel Nadeau of letterpress design and printing studio Ink Meets Paper

Daniel and Allison. Photograph by Olivia Rae James

Allison and Daniel Nadeau are the founders and co-owners of Ink Meets Paper in Charleston, South Carolina. Their motto: “Text less. Write more.” What particularly piqued my curiosity about their business were the videos they impressively produced to accompany each of their letterpress-printed cards. The video helped imbue each product with a narrative ambiance. Here, the Nadeau duo, with their studio ambassador Darcy, share their path toward learning and practicing the craft of letterpress printing, transforming this tactile enthusiasm into a business, nurturing a local infrastructure of community and support, plus more.

On being letterpress printers,
business founders and members

Table-top press at Redux Studios

How did you discover the medium of letterpress printing?
[Allison] In 2008, a neighborhood friend and I signed up for a printmaking class at a local art gallery/studio (Redux Contemporary Art Center). We did monoprints, etchings, screen printing, and so forth, but I really connected with letterpress printing. It was refreshing to be so hands-on and part of the process.

Ink Meets Paper Studio

Mixing ink. Photograph by Olivia Rae James

Hand feeding the press. Photograph by Olivia Rae James

How did you arrive at the idea of being a practicing
full-time letterpress designer and craftsperson?
[Allison] At first, we focused solely on learning the craft of traditional printing, rather than immediately trying to turn it into a business. We were both working other full-time jobs (I was an editor, and Daniel was an interaction designer) at the time, so we were able to take things slowly. As we became comfortable printing, we started to explore more of the industry (stationery/greeting cards, wedding invitations, custom printing for others) and where we saw ourselves best fitting in. What, exactly, were we doing with this enormous equipment that’s in the house? What did we want from this? Could we turn this into something where we both work happily together?

Moving the press into the house

What were essential activities/steps you took to start 
and establish yourself as letterpress makers?
And why were these activities/steps important?
  1. Buying a press: This was a financial and logistical commitment. There’s a lot to learn when transporting 1,000+ pound cast-iron machines :-)
  2. Creating a creative space in our home: It’s essential to have dedicated making space that inspires you.
  3. Spending time learning the craft: Whenever we are learning something new, it’s important to accept that it will be ridiculously hard at first, and the results won’t be what you want. However, as with any craft, the more you do it, the more refined your process will become.
  4. Learning about business and specifically the greeting card and printing industries (sales, reps, minimums, line sheets, buying schedules, etc.): Business is an entire world unto itself, and reconciling your artistic aspirations with “the bottom line” is always a challenge as a maker. We are always researching stores, spending time shopping for cards, and talking to our retail accounts about their experiences. Finding other small business owners in similar industries is hugely helpful because we all wrestle with many of the same problems.
There is a visible renaissance of print, particularly letterpress,
and particularly seized by women. Why do you think this is?
[Allison] I think people in general recognize the importance of and beauty in the physical, hands-on “making” process. They want to get their hands dirty. They want to actually mix ink rather than just selecting RGB values on the screen. I feel the resurgence of printing and the appreciation of quality printed material is from a generation raised around technology, and they want to find a balance between the two.

Chandler and Price platen press

Florida print shop where we got our press

What are your your printing presses?
And how did you find them?
[Allison] We print on an 8x12 Chandler and Price platen press (it’s motorized, but each piece of paper is hand fed into the press). A fourth-generation printer was closing out the letterpress portion of his shop, and we purchased the press (and a bit of type) from him in 2008. We drove from South Carolina to Florida with a friend and a U-Haul trailer. Our friends were kind enough to allow us to keep a 1,000-pound printing press in their garage while we found a place for it (eventually converting a room in our house to a studio).

Close-up of card detail

What is printing’s purpose or obligation
in our society, the world?
[Allison] For us, as letterpress printers of greeting cards, we really feel that the tactile nature of letterpress-printed cards supports modern handwritten communication. There are definitely easier and faster ways to produce cards just like there are easier and faster ways to communicate with someone. But there’s beauty and value in slowing down, in avoiding the urge to rush through something. When someone takes the time to craft his or her thoughts and ideas and, at the same time, embraces the physical process of actually handwriting and connecting the pen to the paper, it doesn’t matter if his handwriting is terrible. That person is part of the process.

[Daniel] Printing helps to create a physical record of human history. Technology is wonderful, but when considering longevity, traditional printing doesn’t require a power source.

Happy Birthday Balloons card

Handwritten correspondence

Who are your influences related to design and craft?
[Daniel] Jon Kolko: I had the opportunity to study under Jon Kolko while attending the Savannah College of Art and Design. His focus on the dialog that occurs between humans and the products we use had a profound effect on how I look at the world. Charles and Ray Eames: Our favorite design couple! It’s immensely inspiring to see other married couples that can succeed in business together.

[Allison] Jessica Hische’s beautiful lettering is absolutely inspiring, and I also love how she’s so willing to share her knowledge with others.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?
[Daniel] It’s vital. Following our instincts allows us to act less on trends and what everyone else is doing. We can both look at something and know when it’s ready.

Story Codes

Story Code page

Back of card with QR Story Code

I’m captivated by the display of a video to accompany each 
of your products. Why do this? And how do you make 
the video: scheduling, hardware, software, et al.?
[Daniel] Our videos have an interesting history. Initially, we wanted to find a way to digitally enhance our product while upholding the authenticity of writing. (This is much harder than it sounds.) I really believe in technology and its ability to add to (not remove from) physical product experiences. It’s also a fun challenge, because technology will always be changing rapidly.

Videos were edited in iMovie and hosted through Vimeo. Initially, videos took a long time to shoot, but we dialed in specific required shots and photographs to create a video template that could still show the entire process. We discovered that music was a huge hurdle, and I was pretty put-off by the entire experience of attempting to license known tracks as a small business. We ended up using Apple GarageBand royalty-free loops or getting friends to let us use their band’s music.

It also affected our production schedule. We had to set up and shoot video footage during the first run of the designs, and product photography was done as soon as they were off the press. We can’t always be certain that a design will be successful when actually printed. We’re getting better at that, but these initial runs shouldn’t be burdened by shooting video. That keeps the operator from focusing on the craft and the production-readiness of the design.

Takeaways from Card Stories and what we learned:
  1. Craft is often repetitive. From piece to piece, the design may change, but the process is the same. After creating almost 60 videos, we had enough ‘data’ to decide whether this was sustainable in the long run…it wasn’t.
  2. Marketing an entirely new experience for greeting cards is difficult, especially for a company made of two people. Thinking about marketing brought up many more questions: Would we be asking store owners to tell their customers about Card Stories? Are they really a strong selling point? Is there real value in a completely separate video for each design? 
  3. Telling the story behind our product is important, and customers should know what goes into the products they buy.
  4. Ultimately, this made us focus on the experience that does exist for card buyers, and the result of that exploration was an envelope and packaging that was exclusive to our line. 
Next for Card Stories: We’re taking what we’ve learned and our new product packaging and re-doing our website to better communicate the work that goes into each Ink Meets Paper product.

Ink Meets Paper envelopes

National Stationery Show booth

Ink Meets Paper packaging detail

How do you get the word out about what you do?
How do you attract work, customers and clients?
[Daniel] We submit to publications, and we’re always adding to our list of bloggers, press contacts, etc. For our wholesale customers, we stay in touch with newsletters, direct emails, phone calls, mailers, and social media. Most of our custom work comes from referrals or from people who have seen our work in person at events or through social media.

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to business?
[Daniel] I feel like business growth is a series of emotional leaps regarding what you know is possible. For example, we participated in the National Stationery Show for the first time last year, and it was our first trade show ever. There were some serious late, no-sleep nights where we thought we wouldn’t get it done, but things came together, and we did it. And it’s already much easier this time around.

How would you describe your business’ work culture?
And why is it important?
[Daniel] Well, right now, our culture is a bizarre tanglement of life, work, and marriage. I would say we have a design-centered culture. We are willing to take on any role in the business in order to better understand the experience of everyone involved. (How can you brighten a warehouse worker’s day? What does it feel like to ship packages all day? What about bookkeeping and accounting—how does that fit into the overall business plan? What does it feel like to do sales all day?) By approaching work this way, we accept that things will be hard and take a lot of work up front, but when people are considered at every step, then you can build products and a business that people love working with. We have a culture where we accept that we don’t know, but if we focus and do the work, we can find out.

Where can people see and buy your letterpress-made products?
[Allison] Our cards and paper goods are available in retail stores nationally and internationally, and we also sell online through Etsy.

When and how did you arrive at the company’s name?
[Allison] I had been doing a bit of stationery and invitation design (non-letterpress) for family and friends, and the “Ink Meets Paper” name came during a late-night fit of inspiration in 2006. I love how it seamlessly transitioned into our letterpress line and how it supports our belief in handwritten communication.

On creativity, design, working

Design writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called “Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?” Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Strategy/Business, et al., at?
[Allison] They are there, and they are making an impact in the design and creative community. From hosting conferences for creatives to running award-winning design firms to being executive directors of art centers to being partners in the tech-products industry. And that’s just a very small sampling from South Carolina.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
[Daniel] Sometimes we need time away from each other. We always come back together and work to really listen to the other person’s side or opinion. Yes, this can get emotional, and we have to be willing to examine our own selves to see and share what baggage we may be bringing along when we have a strong opinion about something. Ultimately, we can always agree that we care deeply about Ink Meets Paper, and we want this company to thrive.

What part of your work is particularly trying,
and how do you deal with it?
[Daniel] Doing the work of an entire team of people with just two individuals is always tough. As a maker, it is a challenge to sell your own product. A salesperson that’s not a maker can say “these are the best cards you’ve ever seen,” but that doesn’t quite fly when you try to say that about something you’ve made yourself.

Working. Photograph by Olivia Rae James

In the inventory room. Photograph by Olivia Rae James

At the press. Photograph by Olivia Rae James

At the dining table that doubles as a work table sometimes. Photograph by Olivia Rae James

In the office. Photograph by Olivia Rae James

Studio cat Darcy. Photograph by Olivia Rae James

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute 
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
[Allison] We currently work out of our home, and have three rooms dedicated to Ink Meets Paper: studio (where all of the printing and production happens), office (design work and collaboration), and inventory/shipping room. Neatness and organization are key to keeping everything running smoothly. Everything has a place. We also try to keep our live-work spaces separate (which I think is really important, even though it seems like we work all of the time). We have Homasote panels on the walls of our office, making it easy to pin ideas and projects to the wall to discuss. Lots of natural light is also really important. Not only does it help with color checks, but it helps with our moods. As we’re growing though, we’re definitely feeling the constraints of being in the house and are hoping to move into a separate studio space by the end of the year.

[Darcy] Meow.


What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas
and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?
[Allison] When we’re working on card designs, we do lots and lots of sketching. So a variety of pens, markers, and papers is key. We’ll pin up initial concepts on the walls and narrow down a direction from there.

[Daniel] In many ways, the business side of Ink Meets Paper is run like a technology company. We leverage web services heavily in order to keep everything organized:
  1. Google Apps
  2. Dropbox for file syncing and sharing
  3. Stitch Labs is our order management and inventory tracking system
  4. Xero is our bookkeeping software
  5. AffinityLive is our quoting, production management, customer service, and sales software
  6. We also use Asana for our own internal project management and new product development
How do you stay creative? What are some of your sources
of motivation/inspiration?
[Allison] I feel insanely lucky to have found an amazing group of creative women in Charleston who are also small business owners in creative fields. There are five of us, and we meet monthly for coffee and to talk about the ups and downs of small business life. I’m also endlessly inspired by our friends who are also letterpress printers. While we might not see each other in person often, we’re able to stay connected through Instagram and Twitter. It’s nice to know that when you’re going through a creative rut, you can reach out to someone else who’s been there. Finding time for other projects and hobbies is also important (and admittedly, it’s really hard for me to do sometimes). It’s nice to be able to create just for the sake of creating.

[Daniel] Friends! We were lucky enough to have a great group of friends when I was studying at SCAD. We’ve kept in touch and many of us have started businesses ourselves. While our products might be different, the business parts are the same, and we’re all still learning things and figuring it out together.

What is your definition of bad design?
[Daniel] Bad design is a result of not honoring the fact that you are creating something that affects another person’s life. It’s rarely “the easiest route,” but that is the work of design. I believe design affects all elements and interactions within a business. Perfection is not really possible, but caring goes a long way.

If you were posed, “I want to do what you do,”
what’s your response?
[Daniel] Oh, really? Tell me more. I want to hear where you are now and where you want to be.

[Allison] Learn as much about the craft or industry as you can. Sometimes it’s best to take small steps rather than giant leaps.

Other aspects of your work that would be interesting to creative practitioners and aspiring product/business makers?
[Daniel] We’re really running four businesses:
  1. Manufacturing facility for custom work and our own products
  2. Brand and wholesale line
  3. Online retail store
  4. Design services company (graphic design, lettering, calligraphy)
We’re in a pretty cool industry. There are few things that universally elicit a smile, but people are always happy to receive a card in the mail.

Presenting at Pecha Kucha Charleston

How does the city of Charleston, South Carolina, 
contribute to your work? And what makes it special for 
[Allison] We live and work in North Charleston, which is actually a separate city from Charleston. But both Charleston and North Charleston have insanely talented and creative people, and there’s a huge drive (for example, through Lowcountry Local First) in both cities to support all types of local businesses. Charleston’s Creative Parliament connects creatives and organizes events like Pecha Kucha. We feel pretty lucky as well to have the North Charleston Cultural Arts Department as a champion of artists and creatives. We live in an awesome neighborhood (Park Circle) that really embraces artists and creative types.

[Daniel] People in the coastal south are kind and laid back. This really helps keep our stresses and emotions in check. We are making greeting cards after all :-)

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Photographs courtesy of Allison and Daniel Nadeau of Ink Meets Paper.

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Typeface of quote is Syntax designed by Hans Eduard Meier in 1968.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

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Now available! – New Design Feast publication BROKEN: Navigating the Ups and Downs of the Circus called Work